HTC U Ultra review: HTC finally nails it

Published March 8th, 2017 - 06:58 GMT
HTC U Ultra in Sapphire Blue. (HTC)
HTC U Ultra in Sapphire Blue. (HTC)

I wasn’t particularly impressed when the HTC U Ultra was officially revealed back in January. However, after playing with the phone at the Dubai launch event, my opinion started shifting. HTC sent me a review sample last week and after spending some good time with it, I’m pretty much in love with it. While I won’t call it the best phone I’ve ever used, I will say that HTC has nailed the formula of making a really, really good phone.

Let’s start with the design. I received the Sapphire Blue version of the phone and it is STUNNING. Pictures really don't do justice to it and I highly recommend you try it out at a store. The Liquid Surface design is made using a curved glass that blends into the sides of the phone. The finishing is incredibly smooth and shiny and gives a luxurious and distinct look to the phone. A camera bump on the top disrupts the otherwise symmetrical, uniform look.

As pretty as the HTC U Ultra is, It’s definitely a phone that will require you to use both your hands. It’s big and very slippery, and attracts fingerprints easily. For those of you that want to protect your phone, HTC bundles a back cover inside the packaging. But you really shouldn’t be wrapping the HTC U Ultra with anything other than your hands to truly appreciate it’s beauty.

At 8mm and 170g, the HTC U Ultra is quite thin but not groundbreaking by today’s standards but lighter than I expected. On the top HTC places the SIM card tray that can take two nano SIM cards or one SIM card and a MicroSD card. I’m glad that HTC is finally offering dual SIM option on a high-end phone. On the right, you can see the volume buttons as well as a power button with a different texture while the USB 3 Type C connector sits at the bottom and supports Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 technology.

HTC has removed the 3.5mm jack which is something we first saw with the HTC 10 Evo. While I don’t have any issues with the removal of the audio jack, HTC should have bundled a Type-C to 3.5mm dongle with the U Ultra. To make things worse, you can’t add any off-the-shelf dongle. It has to be an HTC specific one for now. I had a chat with HTC about this and they are expecting third party dongles that work with the phone released soon.

Coming to the front of the phone, you can see the huge 5.7-inch IPS display with a QuadHD resolution. It’s a gorgeous display that’s bright enough to use outdoors. Above the main display sits a secondary display- very much like the one seen on the LG V20 and serves a similar purpose- showing notifications as well as giving you access to contacts, calendar or your music app. You can also raise the phone to see notifications on this secondary display when the  main one is asleep. I would like an option to keep the secondary display powered up all the time.

While this secondary display helps keep the bezel area small on the top of the device, HTC does take up plenty of area below the screen where you can find the fingerprint sensor and capacitive buttons. That’s pretty much my only complain about the HTC U Ultra’s design- other manufacturers such as LG and the rumored S8 are moving to thinner bezels which makes the phones look more futuristic.

The HTC U Ultra is powered by the Snapdragon 821 processor instead of the 835 which some people have complained about. HTC’s President of Smartphones, Chialin Chang explained that for HTC to use the Snapdragon 835, they would have had to delay the phone by a good margin. Instead, HTC decided to release the phone now and get the advantage of being one of the fastest phones out there. I think that’s a good decision on HTC’s part. Also, let me say that the Snapdragon 821 is no slouch. In fact, it’s incredibly fast- especially when bundled with the 4GB RAM that the HTC U Ultra is equipped with.  I’m also glad that HTC went with a base storage of 64GB on the U Ultra- all phone manufacturers should do this for their 2017 devices. HTC also sells a 128GB version of the device if you prefer more built-in storage.

You won’t find any lag on this device

One more feature worth highlighting on the HTC U Ultra is the presence of four microphones in an always on state which means that you’re able to use the OK Google command even if the phone is in standby mode. The four microphones also help capture positional sound in high definition for your video and audio recordings. Coming to sound output, sadly, you won’t find front-facing stereo speakers on the HTC U Ultra but that being said, the downward facing speaker is very loud and is complemented by another speaker present in the ear piece. For a better listening experience, HTC bundles a USB Type-C powered headset that works with HTC USonic technology that we saw on the HTC 10 Evo previously. The technology evaluates and measures each of your ear and accordingly adjusts the audio for individual hearing.

Another area where HTC shines is with the HTC Sense UI which, over the years, has become more of a launcher running on top of stock Android than a full-fledged UI and that’s a good thing. The launcher is very customizable through themes that can either use a traditional icon layout or stickers that can be placed anywhere and can launch apps or initiate other actions.

I also like the fact that HTC is removing custom apps that many people will ignore and instead, simply use apps made by Google. The U Ultra uses Google Photos for gallery, Google Music for audio and Google Calendar for scheduling. About the only app that’s left is the messaging app but considering the recent announcement of Google adopting the RCS standard by releasing “Android Messages”, I won’t be surprised to see this go away in a future update.

That being said, there are a couple of HTC apps such as Boost+ that optimizes your phone by deleting temporary data or recovering memory from apps that haven't been used for a while. There’s also a Zoe Editor that lets you edit the live pictures that you can take from the phone’s camera. Also present are quite a few UI tweaks that help with the usability of the phone such double tapping to wake the screen up or double pressing the power button to fire up the camera. What is missing is HTC’s AI based HTC Companion which is expected to be enabled through a software update in the next few weeks.

Moving on to the camera, HTC has equipped the HTC U Ultra with a 12 MP, f/1.8 camera with Optical Image Stabilisation and laser/phase detection autofocus technologies. This allows the HTC U Ultra to take excellent shots, even in low light. The back camera is a tad bit slower in taking shots when compared to the likes of the Google Pixel or the iPhone. Here are some sample shots from the camera. 

Htc U Ultra Camera Sample 6

HTC has also equipped the U Ultra with a pretty good front camera that can either take 16MP shots for selfies with great detail or switch to the Ultrapixel mode that offers a lower resolution but better shots during under low lit conditions.

Let’s finally address the most controversial decision HTC has made with the Ultra U- the 3,000mAh battery which sounds low for a phone with a 5.7-inch screen size. To put things in perspective, the Samsung S7 edge has a smaller 5.5-inch screen with a 3600mAh battery while the Huawei Mate 9 Pro, also with a 5.5-inch screen, packs a 4000mAh battery. According to HTC, the design of the phone didn’t permit it to use a larger battery. Now, as long as the phone gets me through a day without a charge, I’m ok with that. How did the HTC Ultra U fare?

I usually pull the phone off the charger around 7AM and my day ends around 10PM. The first day I started using the phone, I was completely out of charge by 3PM. That wasn’t a good start. But over the next couple of days, I saw battery life improve and the HTC U Ultra lasted me till 7PM on day 2, 8:30PM on day 3 and just past 9PM on day 4. By the second week, I consistently had over 30% battery left by the time I hit the bed. So don’t panic if your new HTC U Ultra shows bad battery life in the first few days of usage- it will get considerably better.

It's clear that the HTC U Ultra is a phenomenal device. But unfortunately, you won't realize that by reading this review. You really need to try it in-person to appreciate its beauty. Other than looking pretty, it’s extremely fast and has a fantastic camera. The second screen might sound gimmicky but is useful for shortcuts and will get better once HTC introduces the companion. That being said, there are a few oddities about the device- HTC has removed the 3.5mm jack but doesn’t include a dongle to accommodate older devices. Also, you’d think that removing the 3.5mm jack would help in waterproofing but that’s not the case. And finally, with a glass back, wireless charging should have been present on the HTC U Ultra.

As good of a phone the U Ultra is, the biggest challenge for HTC is getting the phone to as many consumers hands as it can in March. By April, we’re expecting the LG G6 and the Samsung Galaxy S8 take over store shelves which will steal the limelight. But until that happens, the HTC Ultra U takes the top spot as the best phone currently available.

The Good

  • Beautiful Design
  • Fantastic Cameras
  • Gorgeous Screen
  • No bloated bundled apps

The Bad

  • HTC Companion not available at launch
  • No dongle included for 3.5mm output
  • Phone isn’t waterproof
  • Doesn’t support Wireless Charging
By Abbas Jaffar Ali

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